He’s the big name in the restaurant kitchens, but she gets the dirt under her fingernails.
Tom Douglas wants to make sure that Jackie Cross gets all the credit for Prosser Farm.
The three of us walked among the farm’s orderly, verdant rows with their borders of bee-attracting zinnias on a recent hot Eastern Washington afternoon. The nearby sagebrush hills had been burnished gold by this summer’s relentless sun.
“Jackie didn’t get the recognition she deserved as a partner in the restaurants,” Douglas explained. They were already married when they opened the Dahlia Lounge in 1989, and would go on to build a Seattle culinary empire together.
Calm and at home in the fields, Cross wore a well-loved, broad-brimmed hat, long sleeves and overalls.
Cross was raised in Spokane, the granddaughter of Greek and Italian immigrants, her mother an avid gardener. Douglas left his native Delaware when he was 19, not knowing what he wanted to do. He was “just driving around, and ran out of money in Seattle.”
Cross’ upbringing near our region’s fertile farmland eventually called her back east of the mountains, at least part-time. She and Douglas bought Prosser Farm six years ago, and she’s been farming here seriously, on 20 acres above the winding blue ribbon of the Yakima River, for the last four. She’s out here three days a week, Douglas one or two days a month.
After more than three decades on the other side of the industry, Cross said, “There’s something very satisfying about being able to take something from a seed, to completion, to delivery, to served in the restaurant.”
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She and her farm manager, Dev Patel, and the farmworkers planted 3,600 tomato plants this year, among many other things. Last year’s total yield was around 60,000 pounds of produce. A tiny fraction of that goes to dinners like the one they’d cook for friends the night I visited, with the rest traveling in a refrigerated truck over the mountains to the restaurants, in season. Right now, the Carlile Room has Prosser Farm creamed spinach and chard (served with buttermilk-fried onions); the Dahlia’s got end-of-summer farm melons (with buffalo mozzarella, prosciutto, Valencia almonds and hot chilies); Cuoco’s got farm eggplant (grilled, with Calabrian chilies and garlic).
Prosser Farm itself can provide only a small fraction of the vegetables that Tom Douglas Restaurants requires, but the chefs love it. Cross and Patel sit down with them in December before ordering seeds to talk about menu trends and what to plant for the next harvest. The chefs come out in the spring to help with transplanting, too.
“A lot of these chefs … grew up in the city, or grew up in apartments, and they work with produce all the time, but they’ve never seen a potato grow,” Cross said.
“It’s cool for our chefs to really have an idea of the process,” Douglas said.
Marriage of farm, table
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Touring the crops, Douglas asked Cross about what was growing as their dog Pinto ran up and down the rows. Douglas found an enormous hidden cucumber. “There’s one that got away!” he crowed. “I’ll use that in the tzatziki … It’s like a treasure hunt.” Jackie, who’s sweated a lot in the hot sun out here (and doubtless shed blood, and probably tears), indulged him in his gentleman-farmer fantasy.
“Why is the tarragon so small?” he asked.
“We gave it a really big cutback because it was getting too woody,” she replied.
My father grew up not far away, on a small Angus cattle ranch outside of Sunnyside; I grew up spending weekends on this side of the mountains, too, helping mend fence, feed and brand. Cross and I talked about the sage rats that ate all her pea shoots, about what it’s like out here during a drought like this summer’s — the irrigation restrictions, how thirsty the land gets. She uses strictly organic farming methods. “We can’t poison the sage rats,” she said resignedly, though it sounded like she wouldn’t have minded doing so.
Douglas admired a volunteer sunflower growing absurdly high in one of the herb beds. The general abundance, born of the Eastern Washington heat, was enough to make the average Seattle home gardener want to weep with envy.
“I couldn’t be more proud of what she has done with this place,” Douglas said. “It’s just been a beautiful marriage, the restaurants and the farm.”
‘Respecting the ingredients’
Up a winding, dusty road, the farmhouse is surrounded by trees and painted a shady green — a hilltop retreat with a small pool, a huge kitchen and a tranquil river view. Inside, we gulped water and talked more.
Douglas started working at Seattle’s Cafe Sport in 1984. He won the Best Chef Northwest James Beard award in 1994, then Outstanding Restaurateur in 2012. His restaurants now number more than a dozen. I suggested that when it comes to the cuisine of the Northwest, Douglas might be situated to speak its evolution over time.
“Well, certainly not over THAT much time,” he said, “considering the Nez Perce were here long before we were, and the Salish.”
“It’s obviously defined in my book just by the natural ingredients of the area,” he went on. “Every place had these … now it’s a matter of who hasn’t ruined everything yet.” He’s working to protect the Bristol Bay salmon run in Alaska from the proposed Pebble Mine project.
He spoke of foraged mushrooms, berries, oysters, razor clams. He acknowledged nettles and fiddlehead ferns, even though, he said, “I just don’t like them.” He opined that Washington should be the Geoduck State, which would look pretty good on a flag.
Northwest cuisine is about “respecting the ingredients,” he said, citing Alice Waters as an influence. “I learned a lot from her myself. It was really just looking at what’s around you. That came from her French sensibilities,” he said.
“She was one of the first ones who started really directly working with farmers, local farmers,” Cross added, “having them grow her specific things, and starting that sort of relationship up. She was the champion of it.”
“She got the publicity for it, which it needed,” Tom said.
Cross noted that Douglas was an early adopter when it came to Asian flavors and techniques, starting way back at Cafe Sport. “Everyone who worked in the kitchens had all come over from Cambodia, or Laos …” she said. “And they were doing all these amazing employee meals … that just became absorbed, and that’s so absorbed now into the local fabric.”
“We’re an amalgamation, we just are,” Douglas concurred. “I think it’s evolving. I don’t know that it has to stay where it was. Nothing else does … To lose the history would be sad, but it certainly doesn’t have to stay historic.”